Taming is a process by which a wild beast is subdued into adapting and submitting to human control. Which beast is the hardest to tame? Zebras? Sharks? House cats?
According to Scripture, it the human tongue. As James, the brother of Jesus, observes, “all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man” (James 3:7). Despite mankind’s success in taming the animal kingdom, there exists one wild thing, James says, we haven’t been able to subdue and adapt: “no man can tame the tongue.”
While we may never fully tame our tongues, we can—with the help of the Holy Spirit—take steps to use our words in a manner increasingly edifying and more like Jesus. None of these steps will be new for every believer who has read the Bible has been instructed on taming our tongues. But as English writer Samuel Johnson once said, “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.” Here then are a few reminders about how we can be more careful about what we say.
Look to your union with Christ
This expression “in Christ” occurs 216 times in the letters of Paul and 26 times in the writings of John. The word “in” is the connective hinge of the doctrine referred to as “union with Christ.” Union with Christ means you are in Christ and Christ is in you. Because we are united to him, Jesus gives us the power and ability to do whatever he requires of us. It is because of this union with Christ we can say with Paul, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). We are better able to understand we can change when we remember our union with Christ, that Jesus is in us and helping us tame our tongues.
Speak only after careful consideration
In almost every action movie there’s a scene in which the hero is captured by the villain. Our hero has his hands and feet bound or is being held at gunpoint or is in some way helpless and at the mercy of the villain. And every time the hero insults or provokes the villain, resulting in physical punishment. While we may admire the hero’s resolve, we tend to think, “Why didn’t he just keep his mouth shut?”
What we’re acknowledging is that the hero had a choice not to say anything. Yet we often forget we have the same choice. The book of Proverbs tells us, “He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin” (Prov. 13:3) and that “Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity” (Prov. 21:23).
Often we are not going to take a physical beating for what we say. More likely, our words will be used to hurt others. But we can spare ourselves and others a lot of pain by simply recognizing we don’t have to verbalize everything we think.
Understand why you refuse to be silent
Proverbs also tells us, “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues” (Prov. 17:28). Why do we refuse to be silent, even when that would be to our benefit? Often we refuse to remain silent because we believe we are engaged in zero-sum verbal exchanges and if we refuse to speak the other person will “win.”
The reality is we rarely win in such situations. We don’t change the other person’s mind. All we gain is the fleeting emotional high of delivering a stinging rebuke. What we don’t recognize is we are settling for a temporary buzz instead of the permanent benefit of being thought wise and discerning.
Be slow to speak your mind
Imagine if your next thought could potentially be heard by hundreds or even thousands of people, and potentially shared so that it’s known to millions. For most of human history, that ability was limited to only a handful of the most influential people on the planet. Yet today, because of communication tools like social media, our every utterance—whether silly or profound, wise or foolish—can be sent across the globe.
Such power should make us extremely cautious about what we say or write. And yet we tend to be less careful about what we say than ever before. The gratification that comes from instant communication entices us to be quick to speak our mind—often before we’ve measured our words.
The Bible is clear such behavior is foolish. “Do you see someone who speaks in haste?” says Proverbs 29:20. “There is more hope for a fool than for them.” How then can we be less hasty? One way is to set a time limit before you speak or write on a public platform. If the thought seemed witty or funny isn’t worth saying after a cool-down period of a few hours or few days, then maybe it wasn’t as interesting as you thought.
Remember that we will be held accountable
Perhaps the most effective means of taming our tongue is reminding ourselves God will hold us responsible for every ungodly remark we make. Every single one. As Jesus said, “But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken” (Matt. 12:36). When we believe this statement is true—when we believe it with all our being—it becomes much easier to tame our tongues.
For more on this topic, see the new book Taming the Tongue: How the Gospel Transforms Our Talk by Jeff Robinson (TGC, 2021).